The crumpled wreckage of Amtrak’s 501 train was horrific, as the mangled cars of the high-speed train dangled over the busy Interstate 5 near Tacoma, Washington on December 18. Three people died in the crash; among them, Zack Willhoite and Jim Hamre, well-known train enthusiasts.
You can read about the lives of Willhoite and Hamre here.
Dan Hall, captain of the Washington State Patrol, said in a December 18 evening press conference, that the crash occurred around 7:30 a.m. in the morning. “We had the train cars actually come down on Interstate 5,” he said, adding that first responders did a “life rescue search” climbing up a hill through the wet, the cold, and downed power lines and trees to reach victims.
Hull provided these updated numbers: 19 people were transported uninjured from the scene; 72 people were evaluated and transported from the scene, 10 of those people had serious injuries, 4 had moderate injuries, and 9 had minor injuries. Of those seriously injured, 1 was life flighted. Three people were confirmed dead.
The National Transportation Safety Board is now taking over the lead investigative role with the FBI and Washington State Patrol assisting. An Amtrak spokesman also spoke at the press conference and called the derailment a “tragic event” and expressed that Amtrak was “deeply saddened.” Authorities did not shed further light on the cause of the derailment, but the FBI did say in a statement that “At this time, there is no information to suggest a federal nexus or elevated risk to Washington residents.” NBC is reporting that investigators are considering whether speed was a factor in the crash; the Associated Press previously reported through an anonymous source that investigators were also probing whether an object was blocking the train’s path, but this report has not been confirmed.
Casualty counts varied throughout the day. At least six people died in the tragedy, the Associated Press reported. However, The Washington State Patrol confirmed that only three people died in the crash. The AP’s source was not named. NBC News is reporting that authorities are considering whether speed might have played a role in the crash.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department released what it called “heartbreaking” close-up photos of the crash scene. Motorists in cars on I-5 were also injured by the train derailment, the Sheriff’s Department said, although the fatalities all occurred on the train.
“There were 78 passengers and five crew members on board train,” The Tacoma News-Tribune reported, adding that three people remain in critical condition at hospitals.
According to KIRO 7, the train derailment caused fatalities, major injuries, hospital transfers, and left people still trapped on the train. The estimate of three casualties is preliminary, and more deaths could result. The names of the victims were not yet released, and family members were urged by authorities to avoid the scene and instead go to a family reunification center at DuPont City Hall.
Amtrak only released a general statement, confirming there were injuries.
The train “derailed and fell off a bridge over Interstate 5 near Mounts Road between Lakewood and Olympia,” reported The Seattle Times, noting that Interstate 5 was “closed in both directions” as emergency responders rushed to the scene. The 501 train was on its first trip, according to the Times.
Reporters wrote that the derailment was being treated by emergency response teams as a possible “mass casualty” event, and the Pierce County Sheriff confirmed, “Derailed Amtrak passenger train was heading south bound. Injuries and casualties reported, numbers to come.”
Chris Karnes, chair of Pierce Transit’s advisory board, was on the train and described how the crash occurred suddenly, leading to a cacophony of screams from inside the compartments as windows broke and people slammed into chairs. Karnes gave an eyewitness report to KIRO 7. “We had just passed the city of DuPont and it seemed like we were going around a curve,” Karnes said. “All of a sudden, we felt this rocking and creaking noise, and it felt like we were heading down a hill. The next thing we know, we’re being slammed into the front of our seats, windows are breaking, we stop, and there’s water gushing out of the train. People were screaming.”
He added: “The tracks for this line were supposed to be upgraded to be able to handle higher speeds. I’m not sure what happened at this juncture.” One local mayor had predicted only two weeks before the crash that the new high-speed train project could result in people dying. You can read more about his comments here.
You can learn more about the crash of Amtrak 501 here.